Event Lessons From Outside

Last week TDWI hosted it’s annual San Diego conference, a show I usually attend in full force but missed. If you’re not familiar with The Data Warehouse Institute (TDWI) and you’re a data warehouse/business intelligence professional you should check them out http://www.tdwi.org/.

TDWI is an amazing organization with tremendous membership and talent. They do a LOT of things right. They offer highly valuable vendor-neutral content, they teach invaluable skills, and they have a strong community driven presence. For most of the week I was melancholy having missed attending the San Diego conference. I find interactions with customers, prospects, partners and industry friends invaluable.

But when I started hearing from my friends who were at the conference, I began to wonder if I missed anything besides drinks with my industry colleagues – although that alone could have made the trip worthwhile.

Merv Adrian offers a summary of the event on his blog http://mervadrian.wordpress.com/2009/08/07/tdwi-disappoints-but-there-is-hope-ahead/. I’ve heard similar feedback from other attendees. General sentiment has been that although some good hands on content was shared the conference was disappointing. Attendance was extremely low, thought leadership seemed to be missing and general enthusiasm was non existent.

What happened?

While I don’t pretend to be an expert on the inner workings of TDWI I have some outside observations that can remind all of us about the challenges of event planning.

You’ve heard it before. The economy affects travel budgets. But it does not eliminate them. Events that require travel will struggle to attract attendees. Corporate travel restrictions make justification processes challenging for many prospective attendees. And yet, TDWI attendance drop off (average estimate I’ve heard is around 40% – this is not an official number) is significantly higher than for other events I’ve attended this year. I believe several factors affected the San Diego event more than other venues.

Go lean, not extreme. Staff reductions will effect the quality of an event.
TDWI is ultimately a business and it like many businesses has had to adjust to a struggling economy. Reducing staff puts a heavy burden on remaining staff to step up their game both before, during and after an event. Individuals must do more with less time. While not a member of the TDWI team, I know from my own experience in similar situations that staff reductions, when taken too steeply, can become a self-fulfilling downward cycle. You cut staff, results suffer, you cut more staff.

More isn’t always better.
Make the tough choices – big conferences or local seminars. TDWI has recently introduced a series of regional events designed to complement their larger conference venues. I suspect that these regional events have pulled from attendees that would otherwise have attended the San Diego event. There is nothing wrong with having an intimate event with 100 – 300 people, but the cost structure, vendor participation and industry experts who attend need to adjust to a different formula. When planning events you must look holistically at your audience and sessions to determine the right mix.

Encourage intimacy.
No, I don’t mean the elicit personal relationship building that the conference rumor mill feeds upon. If your conferences are going to be smaller, you should embrace the audience in different ways. For example, a vendor exhibit hall might not be the best mechanism for sponsorships. Instead consider sponsored birds of a feather luncheons, or more prime time hands-on labs.

Validate your audience’s interests (including sponsors & guest speakers)
It may be labor intensive but constantly evaluating your course make up against the actual list of registered attendees is critical to finding a satisfactory balance for all parties involved, speakers, sponsors and general attendees. For example an instructor plans differently for a class of 50, than for a class of 9. With a smaller classes the course can become more workshop driven focusing on issues of particular relevance to the students. If done properly both the instructor and the student are more fulfilled. But this can not be done without advanced planning.

While I couldn’t attend the conference I’d like to think I still learned something from afar. And next time around, I hope to be at a bigger (or perhaps more intimate), and even better TDWI show.

In the interim, I’m going to bring these event planning reminders to my next conference strategy session.